The Power to Enrich

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Guest Author,  Josh Hill – One often hears references to the “real world” in education as if within the walls of the school we are somehow somewhere else. I believe this idiom is a symptom of a larger mindset, one that John Dewey warned of a century ago. Dewey was troubled that what was taught in school was thought of as essentially “static”, presented as a finished product “with little regard to the ways in which it was originally built up or to the changes that will surely occur in the future”.  Not much has changed…

To quote Neil Stephenson: “One does not have to look far today to see examples of how the ‘schooliness’ of the subjects we teach are either pale versions of the authentic disciplines, or in some cases, so contorted as to be unrecognizable.”

Take the math “problem” used as the title of this blog as an example, I encountered it when middle school student brought it to my drop in lunch extra help room; I was delighted to hear the student mockingly comment: “Instead of going to the trouble of counting legs why wouldn’t Bill just count the cows and chickens?” Word “problems,” such as the one referenced above, commonly found in math worksheets and textbooks bear little resemblance to the mathematics that mathematicians, physicists, and engineers experience. Not only are these problems devoid of real context they completely fail to foster the higher order thinking skills inherent in mathematics. Wikipedia suggests that mathematicians “seek out patterns formulate new conjectures and establish truth by rigorous deduction from appropriately chosen axioms and definitions.” Too often school math, in contrast, encourages mindless application of algorithms or formulas, where accuracy in computation is mistaken for excellence in understanding and problem solving.

Dewey famously commented: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself and believed in an “intimate and necessary relationship between the processes of actual experiences and education”. He called for an educational system where children came to school to do things and live in a community that would give them real, guided experiences and foster their capacity to contribute to society. I love this definition of authentic math provided by Jardine, Clifford and Friesen in their book Back to the Basics of Teaching and Learning: “Authentic Instruction aims to have children experience mathematics as a powerful language of the imagination that allows them to explore big mathematical ideas like balance, space, time, patterns and relationships”. According to Jardine, Clifford and Friesen authentic instruction demands that:

Each task faced in the classroom is precisely not an isolated fragment which must be quickly covered and then dropped in order to get on to the next bit. Rather, classroom and curriculum topics, conversations, and events are treated as ways in to the whole of the living inheritances that have been handed to teachers and students in schools. One is never “doing” an isolated fragment, but is always “doing” the whole living field from a particular locale. Particular events are “read” or “treated” as a part of some longstanding whole to which it belongs and from which it gains its sense and significance.

How might it look in a classroom if teachers set about to make math real? How might it look in a classroom if teachers looked to the real world disciplines they teach for guidance as to the questions and workflow they design for their students?

How might it look in a school if teachers grounded learning in the real world context with which it lives?

It is precisely this question that I hope to explore in this blog series. I hope you’ll consider joining me in this journey and contributing your thoughts below.

Joshua Hill

About the author:
I am a grade 7 & 9 humanities teacher and peer instructional coach at Langdon school.  In my role as a coach I have the opportunity to provide support to teachers throughout our k-9 school as they strive to design learning opportunities that facilitate the acquisition of 21st century skills. I am currently working on my MA in Education Technology Leadership at the University of Calgary. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and 2009 recipient of an Alberta Excellence in Teaching Award.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Indianapolis , IN: Kappa Delta Pi.

Jardine, D. Clifford, P. & Friesen, S. (2003). Back to the basics of teaching and learning: Thinking the world together. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlabaum Associates, Inc.

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6 comments on ““Bill goes to a farm and sees cows and chickens. He counts 6 heads and 18 legs. How many of each animal does he see?”

  1. Interested to see how this conceptual discussion can be grounded with real world examples as this series progresses.

    Very interesting topic

    • Ahh there’s the rub!
      A conceptual discussion regarding grounding learning within the “real world” context with which it lives would be paradoxical without tangible examples… I will share some examples from my experience and also hope to inspire the readership of this blog to contribute their thoughts and experiences about how to make Dewey’s vision of experiential learning a reality in the 21st century classroom.

  2. Have you checked out this website? It tries to facilitate teaching social studies and science topics through real world examples. Is this in line with the type of teaching you are talking about?

    • Hi Lars, I have done some work with Seeds in the past and find their resources to be top notch. If I were designing an authentic instruction learning inquiry for students I would start with exploring real world examples, like the ones available through seeds, and then look for an opportunity for students to get engaged “for real” in the work. I would contact local experts and solicit their help in this endeavor. The goal would be to have students working on a real problem, utilizing the workflow of the authentic discipline, working with experts in the field, and with the opportunity for their work to have an audience and a purpose beyond the classroom. To use the current seeds focus on “habitat in balance” (and if I was working with a curriculum that featured content such as the Alberta grade 7 Interactions and Ecosystems) I might work with students to explore issues facing the Grizzly Bear in the bow valley corridor with the ultimate goal of making an impact on the situation. Thanks for the discussion.

      • Hi Lars and Josh,
        Thanks for the kudos for SEEDS. Our latest Habitat in the Balance module ‘Unusual New Neighbours’ in the Land cluster is on bears and human development and although this one is fictitious, it bears (no pun intended) several parallels to bears, human interactions, and trains in the Bow Valley corridor. This module is targeted at AB Science 7 Interactions and Ecosystems as well as other junior high curricula in other provinces.
        As to making learning contextual by using actual – ‘real world’ examples – this so important to help make learning relevant.
        I recall a chemistry teacher colleague who always used the newspaper for each class(not that this is always a reliable and authoritative source) to relate an article to the chemistry he was teaching. Certainly it is easier to do this with some subjects (my own being Biology) than others. Nevertheless, it is important to try. All the best in your studies.

  3. Pingback: Enough about what we shouldn’t be doing already…. Dream a little dream with me! : The Power to Enrich

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